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Executive Spotlight

Robin Helfand of Robin's Candy Shop wants to create an experience for every customer who walks in her shop

The Great Barrington business owner got her start in the retail business as first female manager of Dean & DeLuca

PITTSFIELD — Robin Helfand wants the customers who shop at her candy store in Great Barrington to remember it well. For example, each customer at Robin's Candy Shop receives a personalized toothbrush with every purchase.

"That’s our signature," Helfand said. "Everyone knows that we're the candy store with a conscience. We actually have that trademarked."

The personal touch — it's what Helfand, who holds an MBA in marketing from Cornell University, picked up at several stops in her previous business career. It includes a stint at Procter & Gamble, where she helped sell Crisco shortening with company spokesperson and country music icon Loretta Lynn. Also, the New Jersey native was the first woman to serve as manager at Dean & DeLuca, an American chain of upscale grocery stores, where she learned how to make luxury goods appealing to the average customer.

We recently spoke with Helfand about her candy shop, her background in business and marketing, and her recent contributions to the South County business community, which include work with the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire and helping to found a new group known as the entrepreneur's forum. 

Q: Your website states that your interest in candy dates back to stories your grandparents told you about the candy store and soda fountain they operated in Washington Heights, N.Y., in the 1930s. Is that why you decided to open your own shop?

A: Let me just clarify. I spent time with them going down to the Lower East Side, after they had retired from their candy store. They would take me down to their former vendors, and we would look through huge pickle barrels full of candies, pumpkin seeds and almonds, and we would talk about the candy business. ...

My grandparents would always reinforce this message that people want to feel good about where they are. And that's a big part of what I've tried to do in the store — create an experience.

Q: How do you create that ambience?

A: There's an acronym we use; it's called GUEST. We greet every customer; that's the G. We seek to understand why they're in the store; that's the U. We make eye contact. Eye contact is very, very important, I think, in every sales business, pandemic, Zoom. ... Any time you have an interaction, it goes from having an interaction with something to having an interaction with someone. So, that's the E.

We smile, or now as we say, we smile with the mask on. That's the S. We smile and we thank [thank is the T]. And thank really means we exit each customer, whether or not they purchase with an appropriate salutation. We give out toothbrushes with every purchase. A lot of times, we give out toothbrushes without a purchase. It's always, "Hey, you've got to keep that sweet tooth healthy." So, people leave feeling good about the time that they spend. That parting gesture is important.

It's really, really important for branding to let our guests go home — because the majority of them are not local and we know that — and tell their neighbor who may be coming up to the Berkshires that, "Hey, there's a great candy store in the Berkshires named Robin's," not that "There's a great candy store in the middle of town and I don't remember the name." And the way we do that is to try and give each customer five impressions of the name of the store.

Q: Why do you give out the toothbrushes?

A: Customers would say, "What's this? A toothbrush made out of candy?" And we say, "No, it's to keep that sweet tooth happy," and that's evolved into, "If my customers don't have teeth, then I don't have customers." It's part of each customer feeling good about being in the space and having a good time while they're here.

Q: So, it's all about making a good impression?

A: I think that's what's sustained us over the last 15 or 20 years [Robin's Candy Shop opened in 2004, and moved to Great Barrington four years later]. Turning the store into a destination — and you can't pay for that. It's not from advertising. It's from word-of-mouth.

Q: How did your previous business experience help prepare you for what you're doing now?

A: I was the first female manager of Dean & DeLuca, which is a specialty food store [that was founded] in New York. That's where I first got bit by the retail bug.

It was just so clear to me that I wanted to be in the food space, but not the restaurant space. I loved sales. I love interacting with customers. I love the challenge. As we say, no one needs anything in a luxury goods store, whether it's Dean & DeLuca or my store. It's about desire.

When we check someone out of [the store], we say, "Did you find everything you were hoping to find?" We never say, "Did you find everything you needed to find?" Nobody needs candy. But, I found that to be a challenge.

It was really exciting to learn from two people, Joel [Dean] and Giorgio [DeLuca, two of the chain's three founders], because they were not only masterful retailers, they were masterful salespeople. ... I was very fortunate along the way to have a number of opportunities to have mentors along the way who taught me not only what it is to be a good salesperson, but to be a good brand ambassador. 

Q: Tell me about your work [with the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire].

A: The pandemic has really been an opportunity for me to shift my focus. ... It gave me a way to think of ways I could give back to the community for all small businesses and other entrepreneurs.

For the first 15 to 17 years, I had my nose to the grindstone. I literally barely had time to cook dinner when I got home, so, my opportunities to be specifically engaged were very limited. I tried to be on as many town committees as I could ... but, I really couldn't be involved in service organizations, because I didn't have the time.

So, when I first had the time, I became very involved with Rotary and with the community development organization with developing the Small Business Development Technical Assistance program, which is funded by the CARES Act. Come into the program and you qualify for 15 hours of one-on-one consultation. The nature of the consultation could be anything from launching a new business, pivoting because you had to change your business strategy during the pandemic, or, if your business was good during the pandemic, with scaling. ...

To date, we've helped over 30 businesses, and the program just started in April of 2021. It's been funded through 2022. There's a need for that.

Q: How did the entrepreneur's forum take shape?

A: About a year ago, Richard Stanley [the owner of the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington] and Tim Newman and I were all having coffee, and we were talking about all the COVID refugees that were moving up here. ... The marketer in me said, "Let's do a focus group."

We put together a focus group of people that were up here. Just by coincidence, it was people who came up here not because they could work remotely, but because they could take the opportunity to do something they wanted to do along the lines of opening a business. At the end of the focus group, we said, "Hey, that was really helpful; let's do it again next month," and it grew into what we now call the entrepreneur's forum. We meet monthly, and it's over 100 people, which is pretty remarkable for an area that is so sparsely populated. ...

There's a beekeeper in the group, the owner of a yoga studio — it's a really diverse group. But, everyone has something in common. Everyone signs the front of the paycheck.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.

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